Salvo 07.25.2023 10 minutes

Barbie v Oppenheimer

People go into a frenzy of looking like a Barbie

The two hit summer movies strike complementary chords.

I’ve read all your Barbie reviews, they were fun! They almost made me want to go see the movie, just so that I too can diss it.

“All you need to know about #BarbieTheMovie is that it unironically uses the word ‘patriarchy’ more than 10 times,” said Ben Shapiro. Kyle Smith observed:

[The] script is like a grumpier-than-average women’s studies seminar. […] Hearing characters issue denunciations such as “You fascist!” while Barbie muses that the fate of women is “Either you are brainwashed or you are weird and ugly — there is no in-between” is like going to the cotton-candy factory to find it produces lead pipes.

Smith counted two separate references to Proust in the film.

I’d like to write a review like that myself, but I’m late in the game and, in any event, I am not paying $20 to sit through three hours of this hot garbage.

What the filmmakers got right was marketing. Christian Toto explained that the doll manufacturer Mattel was laser-focused on publicity, making sure to drown out the the long-winded woke themes in the Pop Art visuals:

Yet the message discipline for “Barbie’s” marketing team has been nothing short of outstanding. Most potential movie goers won’t read the quotes from [the filmmakers] Ferrell, Gerwig or Nef. They’ll be too busy sharing the cute clips and frothy trailers on social media.

The feminist director Greta Gerwig cast the heteronormative beauty Margo Robbie (the glamour icon Sharon Tate in Once Upon a Time in Hollywood) as the female lead. At a time when the corporate guardians of beauty try to mainstream obesity and estrogenated men, Barbie went iconic — slender, legged body, chiseled cheekbones, blond locks. She is the dreaded white woman intersectional feminists warned you about and the movie broke all sorts of records, grossing $162 million in its opening weekend. You don’t think the audience is there for the Proust references, do you?

And sure, Big Hollywood gave one of the gimmick Barbie parts to a trans-identified male, and the zaftig comedienne Amy Schumer was offered the leading part first. Lucky for Gerwig, Schumer backed out, finding the movie not feminist enough—it was Robbie who created the buzz. Robbie is the ideal of Barbie, not Barbie reimagined as a fat chick, a boy who really wants to be a girl, or a middle age woman with a stellar career in midlevel management. She is a creature of the intense emotional lives of prepubescent girls.

Barbie wasn’t thrust into the world of bourgeois youngsters by some faceless soulless corporation. She wasn’t devised by a university lab, a think tank, or a startup. She came out of a child’s play—the doll’s creator Ruth Handler noticed that, instead of playing with baby dolls, her daughter drew paper dolls that looked like grown-up women.

The urge to play with grown-up dolls was not confined to the playgrounds of North American under late stage capitalism. Growing up in the USSR, where there was no market capable of creating innovative consumer products, I didn’t care much for traditional baby dolls either. I drew idealized feminine paper princesses, designed their wardrobes and paper palaces in notebooks. I found out about Barbies when I was already in my late teens and was kind of bummed out about missing out on that marvelous toy.

It’s easy to make fun of Barbie’s saccharine paradise—of course it’s not real life. It’s the dream world and the innocence of little girls that’s being ridiculed—by feminists, no less, who remain frustrated by girls’ stubborn insistence on playing with pretty things and make-believing adult relationships when boys conduct mini-science experiments and are fascinated by propulsion?

In the nineties, third-wave feminists had to claim the color pink for their movement as a testimony of authenticity. On opening day, a friend of mine watched teen girls flock to the local premier of Barbie. She texted me saying they were all dressed in pink. Even some boys were dressed in pink. I observe similar scenes around the movie theater the same weekend. The Bay Area is not quite back to normal post-shelter in place, but Mattel Corporation gave women an excellent excuse to dress uberfem for a public event.

Aside from Robbie and her marketing team, Gerwig has Oppenheimer to thank for her film’s strong opening weekend. Barbie arrived at the movie theaters on the arm of an historical drama about the father of the nuclear bomb—the films opened on the same day. The two iconic figures compliment each other perfectly.

Both Barbie and Oppenheimer are midcentury characters taking America back to its golden age. They are the soft and the hard powers that won the Cold War. They are binary like sex. She enjoys all that our civilization has to offer, he safeguards her prosperity with the power of his mind. She’s not even real, but is there anything he won’t do for her?

The idea of Barbie is light-hearted fun, but Oppenheimer is a moralistic downer. Christopher Nolan’s biopic starring Cillian Murphy is based on the 2006 Pulitzer-winning American Prometheus by Kai Bird and Martin J. Sherwin that tells the story of the tortured head of the Manhattan Project. Members of J. Robert Oppenheimer’s family perished in the Holocaust while he was developing the bomb to end the war. After unleashing the power of nuclear destruction, its mastermind spent the rest of his life burdened by guilt.

The side-by-side release created the Barbenheimer pop culture phenomenon. The studios played it up, encouraging moviegoers to see the double feature, but look at the posters. She — pink and bubbly; he — monochrome, depressive with a cigarette. Barbenheimer struck a chord.  

A Barbenheimer fan art poster went up in a restaurant in my neighborhood and the hashtag trended on Twitter. Users shared their pictures as Barbie and Oppenheimer on social media. Arizona Senator Kyrsten Sinema, for instance, posted two pictures of herself, in bright pink next to a morose black and white, commenting “Get you a Senator who can do both. #Barbenheimer.”

If Barbie obediently checks all the woke boxes, Oppenheimer is racist and sexist. One feminist came to see Oppenheimer with a stopwatch. She determined that no woman spoke in the movie for the first twenty minutes, and the first female speaker appeared moments before a sex scene. That offers further proof that Oppenheimer is the perfect companion to Barbie. He—the galaxy brain, she—the surreal beauty. He—sexist, she—everyone’s whipping post.

In Oppenheimer’s day, they used to call sexpots like Robbie “bombshells”—explosions, in the Freudian parlance popular in the post-World War Two United States, were stand-ins for orgasms. The grass roots Barbenheimer phenomenon drew upon this idea, generating posters of Robbie and Murphy against the background of pink mushroom clouds. 

On social media at least, the film was disparaged for making minorities “uncomfie” by portraying a “white” man’s anguish and failing to show Axis civilians. Like a good white-adjacent twentyfirst century man, the theoretical physicist is infinitely problematic and that’s without going into his Communist connections.

Regardless of what the creators of Barbie are desperately trying to convey, the mass culture phenomenon is showing us the opposite. The masses don’t care very much for ideologically driven toy movies. The true art, something that speaks to the innermost emotions of the American audiences is not Barbie or Oppenheimer. Endless lectures on pronouns do not captivate the popular imagination; Barbenheimer binary does. What the masses see are a Jewish man wrestling with his conscience and a woman of idealized, Galatean beauty, the moral and aesthetic foundations of our civilization.

The American Mind presents a range of perspectives. Views are writers’ own and do not necessarily represent those of The Claremont Institute.

The American Mind is a publication of the Claremont Institute, a non-profit 501(c)(3) organization, dedicated to restoring the principles of the American Founding to their rightful, preeminent authority in our national life. Interested in supporting our work? Gifts to the Claremont Institute are tax-deductible.

Suggested reading from the editors

to the newsletter